COPA, Cookies, and the Latest Threat to Privacy
by Cy Dillon
By the time you read this, both the Virginia legislature's latest waltz with mandatory Internet filtering and the Google subpoena case will be over. Nevertheless, they combine to prod me into belaboring Virginia Libraries readers with my own opinions on our government, computer data, and individual privacy.
The first thing I want to say is that the government has confused me about Internet filters. One of our state legislators, prodded by a lobbying organization called Focus on the Family, has drafted legislation requiring Internet filtering in all public libraries receiving state funding. They do this, we are told, to protect children from Internet pornography because filters work. We librarians have tried to explain the faults of filtering and the foolishness of relying on it rather than supervision and education for those young people we want to protect. That stance has been viewed as obstructionist rhetoric by filtering advocates. Now, because the Department of Justice has appealed a federal court ruling that the Child Online Protection Act of 1998 is unconstitutional, the federal authorities have subpoenaed search data from several of the largest Internet search engines to prove that filtering does not, after all, work to block pornography. According to an article by Katie Hafner in the January 20th New York Times, search engine data "would help estimate the prevalence of material that could be deemed harmful to minors and the effectiveness of filtering software. Opponents of the pornography law contend that filtering software could protect minors effectively enough to make the law unnecessary." So, are librarians wrong to oppose mandated filtering because it doesn't work? Is it logical to support both COPA and required filtering?As we have seen from the warrantless eavesdropping …, Washington is not very sensitive about spying on U.S. citizens.
Regardless of the complexity of the issue from a librarian's point of view, the filtering debate offers lawmakers the chance to appear to be the defenders of family values; thus, library policies may well be made at the state or federal level in the future. There is a certain irony in the fact that some of the legislators most likely to denounce "big government" are the first on the bandwagon of government regulation of material available to library patrons. Politics really does make strange bedfellows, though references to that old saw will probably be filtered out for Virginia's library patrons. Nevertheless, we can be confident that, in spite of the unnecessary bureaucracy introduced by politicians' desire for good publicity, Virginia libraries will comply with the law, serve their communities, and still do everything possible to protect First Amendment rights.
In the long run, the more disturbing effect of the federal efforts to revive a questionable law may be the further erosion of our privacy as Internet users. As we have seen from the warrantless eavesdropping the federal authorities have initiated as part of the War on Terror, Washington is not very sensitive about spying on U.S. citizens. While the investigators in the COPA case assured New York Times reporters that no personal information is being sought, Hafner quotes a Google spokesperson as saying, "'Google's" acceding to the request would suggest that it is willing to reveal information about those who use its services,' it said in an October letter to the Justice Department. ‘This is not a perception Google can accept. And one can envision scenarios where queries alone could reveal identifying information about a specific Google user, which is another outcome that Google cannot accept.'" Is it too unrealistic to suggest that high school English teachers might one day be afraid to look up Of Human Bondage in a search engine? After all, the FBI might decide that the war on porn needs to track down BSDM enthusiasts.
If this possibility concerns you, Wired.com suggests "cookie management." According to their January 20 issue of Wired News, "Those who want to avoid a permanent record should delete their cookies at least once a week. Other options might be to obliterate certain cookies when a browser is closed and avoid logging in to other services, such as web mail, offered by a search engine." Cookies are, of course, bits of computer code that a site puts on your machine to track your use of that site.
Privacy advocates are also concerned by Google's involvement because it is a major provider of free email accounts for Internet users. The email correspondence would obviously be a vast trove of personal information with great appeal to witch hunters of various persuasions. If your privacy and that of your library patrons concerns you, follow this story. This is by no means the last we will hear of government attempts to intercept and screen private, domestic communication.
All this reminds me: Is your library's integrated system set to retain as little personal information about individuals' reading and Internet habits as possible? Like Google, libraries should be reluctant to serve as information gathering utilities for the federal government. Google's case is under appeal, but the USA PATRIOT Act is still the law of the land.